How Many More Grandmothers Must Die?

April 18, 1994|By DINAH P. TALLENT

My grandmother was murdered, shot in the head by a 19-year-old punk with a makeshift sawed-off shotgun. His reward was a jar of change which had been sitting high on her book shelf collecting dust for months: pennies, dimes, nickels.

The culprit, later diagnosed as a sociopath with a personality disorder, was apprehended due to a tremendous joint effort by several police agencies.

I remember the grueling courtroom drama vividly, with every member of my family seated in quiet anger awaiting the verdict for this atrocity. Yet despite the criminal's confession, overwhelming evidence of planned violence, and a jury's judgment of guilty in the first degree for seven charges (including murder), the judge chose to award this killer a sentence of ''life.'' He spoke of youth, immaturity, the influence of television, a bad childhood and all the typical excuses for sparing the death penalty.

My grandmother's killer will one day be on the streets again.

A sad and frightening thought, you might think. It is not a new theme. The news actively spouts stories of mayhem every evening. In 1960, there were 10,000 homicides reported in one year. Today, 25,000 a year are reported, and Time magazine tells us that a significant number of those killings go unsolved. In addition, there is an increasing probability that victims will fall prey to multiple and serial killers.

So what? I used to shake my head at statistics and wonder what the world was coming to. Maybe I would take an extra moment to lock my door, or warn my children of the hazards of talking to strangers. Now that my family has joined the 25,000 victims, I no longer take a relaxed attitude.

What disturbs me most is the strife between the political parties on the issue of leniency for murderers. The House of Representatives is considering a crime bill to make it harder to release ''career criminals.'' People are talking about gun legislation, controlling the media, counseling kids and families, and any number of other Band-Aid approaches.

Though all these methods may prove helpful before a murder is committed, only the threat and follow-through of swift punishment and justice will deter violence in our country. Sitting on death row for years with unlimited access to lawyers and tax dollars is not swift or follow-through punishment!

Are we doing enough to convince those making the laws that leniency will not be tolerated when a murder is committed? Are we writing enough letters? Are we demanding enough loyalty from our leaders?

How many more grandmothers? How many murderers can our prisons hold? I have no sympathy; only a voice. And that voice shouts ''death penalty -- now!''

Dinah P. Tallent writes from Baltimore.

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